Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Of Peat and Plastic

It's spring break here in Ireland and students have ventured off to explore Europe, leaving myself and two other students to watch over the Louisburgh cottages for a week.  Having my own place has been wonderfully relaxing and peaceful, although I will admit that I am looking forward to the girls getting back.  I’ve enjoyed my time sitting in front of the peat fire, crocheting and sipping massive cups of coffee while watching movies and listening to annoying music that I make an attempt not to frustrate my dear cottage-mates with.  All in all, it has been a peaceful break.
        Of course, with St. Patrick’s Day quickly approaching, Ireland is beginning to pick up the spring time pace.  Lambs need moved to greener fields, peat is being harvested and the pubs are preparing for the wave of tourists that make it a point to see Ireland during the most famous of Irish holidays.  So while the cottage is getting a little lonely, I know that I need to enjoy my peace and quiet while I can—it’s about to disappear.

I woke up yesterday morning to find this little guy sulking in my kitchen window…I know that I am deprived of company when I start saying good morning to visiting arachnids.  Figuring that he would take care of any insect visitors, I left him to his web building.  Since he was gone this morning, I can only wonder what part of my house he is making a new home in.  Perhaps I should have evicted him when I had the chance.

            Spiders aside, there have been quite a few things I have learned about life in general over this break.  The first is that no matter what anyone tells you, corned beef is not an Irish tradition.  We visited several butchers over the past week and have been offered everything from strange, ham-bacon substances to straight cabbage and salt until finally a man said, “we don’t have corned beef.  That’s an American tradition and you aren’t going to find it anywhere in Ireland.”  End of story, I guess.  Maybe I’ll have to try to find a new St. Patty’s day tradition.  Or, better yet, I’ll sample the bacon-ham and look forward to an American Irish feast for next year. 

The second thing that I have learned (or rather, perfected) is the art of building a peat fire.  It’s really not as easy as it sounds.  First, you lay down a good bed of coals, arranging a few pieces of a fire starter through the cracks.  Then I used three small pieces of wood kindling, placing them strategically over the starters so that they will catch, but won’t block all of the flame or air.  Then comes the turf.  Since this is several centuries worth of Irish mud that has been cut and dried under an Irish sun (yes, there is such a thing), burning it takes a good deal care and more than a great deal of planning.  I try to make either a Lincoln log style fort or the more customary tent out of the longer strips.  Then I put a compact peat piece somewhere near the middle where it will catch most of the fire starter’s flame.  You know you’ve done well if you can drop a match through a pre-arranged crack and sit back while the fire starts up.  Last night I had a particularly beautiful fire going.

Which brings me to my third life lesson.  I was crocheting in front of this wonderful fire, sipping pint of Guinness and watching Mel Gibson learn what women want when I noticed that the plastic bag my yarn came in was adding to the clutter around my feet.  Thinking this a simple problem, I kicked the bag into the fire.  Of the funniest sounds in the world, I think that the whomp a bag makes when it goes up your chimney has to be one of the greatest.  Well, the bag stuck in the flue.  My cottage was quickly rolling with smoke and after a few minutes of staring at this disaster in a kind of baffled disbelief, I ran to the windows, threw them open and began to tear apart my fire.  In case you’ve never been to Ireland, peat smoke smells remarkably like burning hair or horse hooves.  It’s not exactly pleasant.  The coals, which are usually a blessing, now were adding to chaos…they don’t go out easily and even after I had removed my smoking peat, the fire still was rolling.  It took a good half an hour before the thing was reduced to a mess of glowing embers and ash, during which time I had made and disregarded several plans on how to fix this ridiculous situation.  I attempted to push a stick up the chimney, but because of the angle, nothing would go far enough in.  I tried vacuuming the flue, but this only resulted in a pile of soot falling onto the embers and creating yet another wave of foul smelling smoke.  I opened a vent and tried vacuuming that, but all I achieved was a face full of soot and the realization that the vent doesn’t connect with the chimney.  I looked outside, but in the dark and the rain I quickly decided that climbing onto the roof was a horrible idea.

I know when I’m licked.  I went to bed last night covered in soot, reeking of smoke and freezing while I waited for the gas heat to warm up my cottage.  This morning I had to swallow my pride and ask for help…one of the wonderful cottage managers came over with a long, pliable piece of plastic and managed to pull the bag down.  So I am pleased to say that I am writing this in front of a peat fire, sipping my coffee and chuckling over how quickly one little whomp can flush a perfectly peaceful evening down the toilet.  I think that I’ll spend the rest of my day making some Challah bread (which I will raise in front of the fire) later and maybe finish learning about Mel and what women want.  For right now, I’m perfectly happy listening to the birds sing, the fire crackle and the wind whistle.  There’s no place like Ireland in the springtime.

Where Giants Roam

There is a place along the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland where the past and the future rush up to meet you. Giant’s Causeway makes you a child again as it sweeps you away into a landscape filled with extraordinary sights, both real and imagined. It brings to mind the endlessness of time, that these beautiful shores have been here a millennia and will continue on a millennia more.

Before one even glimpses the great outdoors, the modern visitor center  fills the eye with informative and interactive exhibits.  When the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center was recently completed in 2011, it was purposed to lay within its natural setting. The roof of the building is planted with local grasses grown from seeds collected from the surrounding area so that the center appears seamless with the landscape. The center calls your inner child out to play. The animated story of the giant is excellently produced.  All visitors are also supplied with a delightful and imaginative handheld audio tour of the Causeway.

As you walk down from the visitor center the cool ocean air leaps up and ruffles your hair, whipping wildly at your jacket .  All the while ,a soothing Irish accent whispers in your ear the folklore of this land’s forefathers. A view of the ocean entices you to the edge of the cliff. A bay meets you,  scattered with the evidence of centuries past, worn by the tides. There is a small ruined stone building nestled into the hillside; perhaps at one point it was a fisherman’s hovel.  Walking the pathway that curls downward around the bay, eventually your eye is directed toward a particular outcropping of rocks across the cove. This is the giant’s camel, the audio tour explains, named Humphrey. It’s really quite miraculous how much it does resemble a camel. As beautiful as this first sight is, the best is just around the corner.

The lilt of an Irish voice fills your ear as you round the bend and get your first glimpse of The Causeway. The legend about this magnificent wonder of nature lights the fire of imagination. A giant named Finn McCool lived on the Antrim coast with his wife Oonagh and the bane of his existence was his rival in Scotland known as Benandonner.  Finn was frequently taunted by Benandonner from afar and on one occasion Finn scooped up a clod of earth and hurled it across the sea at him, but missed.  The huge clod of earth landed in the middle of the Irish Sea making the Isle of Man and the depression formed from scooping up the earth filled up with water to become Lough Neagh. One day Finn finally challenged Benandonner to a proper fight and decided to build a causeway of enormous stepping stones across the sea to Scotland, so that he could walk across without getting his feet wet because, as our storyteller explains, giants hate water. As he approached and caught sight of the great bulk of Benandonner, Finn became afraid and fled back home, with Benandonner hot on his trail. In his haste , as he ran, Finn lost one of his great boots and today it can be seen sitting on the shore just beyond the Giant’s Gate where it fell to the ground. In a humorous turn of events, Finn asks his wife Oonagh to help him hide. Clever Oonagh disguised Finn as a baby and pushed him into a huge cradle, so when Benandonner saw the size of the sleeping ‘child’, he assumed the father must be gigantic. Benandonner fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway as he went in case he was followed.The legend thus explains how Giant’s Causeway came to be in north Antrim, as well as the similar formation at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa.

 As you wander down the trail, the little Irish man in your ear tells you to look far along the coast to the horizon. There, he tells you, is the evidence of Finn’s home. Up out of the cliffside rise two or three columns of rock. Once upon a time, these must have been the giant’s chimney stacks. Soon you come to perhaps the most peculiar natural structure on this earth. Along the shore are many rocks, but as you walk along they make a smooth transition, taking form into great octagonal columns. The columns all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, but their heights greatly vary. They jut out from the shore in mini peninsulas. Some areas are flat, to create the image of honeycombs, while other’s uneven progression create stairs up to the next set of honeycombs. Your inner child will delight in this land of fantasy. It’s a fort to conquer or a futuristic spaceship from which to explore the galaxy.

If you prefer the scientific perspective, you may be interested to know that 65 million years ago there was a period of intense volcanic activity which lasted for several million years. The lava was more than 1000ÂșC and it spread over the chalk landscape, burning forests and filling river valleys. When it cooled and solidified it formed a dark grey rock - basalt. Basalt is a very common igneous rock. The Giant’s Causeway is composed of basalt, solidified lava from one of the flows that filled a river valley. As the lava cooled slowly, it cracked and shrank to develop regular patterns – much like mud when it dries up. However, unlike mud, which cracks only on the surface, the cracking in the lava went through the depth of the flow creating columns. As the cooling process continued over a long period of time, the evenly spaced cracks created a pavement like surface of thousands of regular shaped columns. Most have five and six sides, but some have four, seven or eight. Now these columns stand as a testament to time and to what can be achieved with a little patience.

The Giant’s Causeway soothes the soul. To know that there is such great beauty and wonder in this world gives me peace. Explore for a day or come back again and again, the Causeway is sure to offer a treasure trove of wonders waiting to be discovered.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Bus ride, oh bus ride

Here in Ireland we spend A LOT of time on the bus. In between all the gorgeous sight seeing and exciting adventures, we're stuck on the road with our bus driver Owen. Needless to say, one's mind tends to wander in bordem as time goes on.
Yeats Country

This poem entitled, "Bus ride, oh bus ride", came to me as we were traveling through Yeats Country... The same breathtaking landscapes that inspired famed Irish poet W.B. Yeats' poetry.

Bus ride, oh bus ride
How long will you last?
It's been several hours
And you don't drive very fast

Field after field
Sheep after sheep
My bladder must yield
Our wonderful coach bus
And oh how I weep

The hum of your engine
The groan if your gears 
I wish I had headphones
To save my precious ears

I try to get some rest
As my butt falls asleep
But Owen's braking isn't the best
And awake I must keep

Bus ride, oh bus ride
When will we be home?
Dave can only talk so long
Before his mouth begins to foam

To Louisbergh we go
We'll get there, I know
Bus ride, oh bus ride
Go faster, you're slow

-W. Chase Knauer

Monday, March 11, 2013

Throwback - Olde Irish Blog

Hey everyone - this is the link to the old Irish Blog that existed long before this one here - take a look!